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Corrupt and Diminished, the Communist Party Has Finally Met Its Match

<i> John Lukacs is a professor of history at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. His latest book, "Budapest 1900," will be published this winter by Weidenfeld & Nicolson</i>

Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s assumption of the presidency of the Soviet Union is a portent of many things whose meaning may not be clear for some time. But there is one matter whose meaning should be evident: It is the end of the supremacy of the Communist Party in the government of the Russian empire.

This requires explanation, of the kind that must issue from the perspective of history. All revolutions issue from a certain partisanship. But neither the American nor the French revolution and not even the March, 1917, revolution in Russia, were the makings of a particular political party. In November, 1917, it was Vladimir Lenin, as the leader of the Communist (Bolshevik) Party, who made his revolution. When he consolidated his power four years later, he made it clear that the party would rule the Soviet Union, including its administrative structure and its armed forces. The true leader of the Soviet Union would not be a titular president, or even the head of its government, but the general secretary of the Communist Party--a hierarchy that continued for nearly 70 years. Until now.

Throughout the dim internal political history of the Soviet Union we may discern the presence of three enormous, shapeless forms incarnating power: the party, the government and the army. It was Lenin’s idea--and ideal--that the government and the army should not merely be subordinated to the party; their leadership should be largely, and perhaps even wholly, congruous. To some extent--but only to some extent--this did come about.

For a long time, membership in the party was not only a matter of privilege; it was indispensable for the holding of important positions in the administration and the army. But gradually it appeared that a great country such as the Soviet Union needed all kinds of people in all kinds of fields whose participation in party affairs was less important than their expertise.

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In many other ways, too, the interests and the security of the Soviet state became more important than the cause of communist ideology--especially in foreign relations. Josef Stalin recognized this clearly. In 1941, even before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, this all-powerful general secretary of the Communist Party chose to make himself the head of the government, too; then, during the war, he assumed the headship of the army--marshal and generalissimo.

After Stalin’s death, during the regimes of Nikita S. Khrushchev and Leonid I. Brezhnev, the separation of the functions of party leader and government chairman was reinstated (except for a few transitory years). But this only masked a more important and massive evolution: that of the gradual rise of an administrative and a military hierarchy. Already 10 or 20 years ago, it began to appear that the relative supremacy of the party over that of the government and the army was diminishing--even though, at the top of the state, the position of general secretary of the party remained the most important one.

In the meantime, what had become more and more obvious, especially in the Brezhnev years, was the corruption in the leading circles of the party. That corruption was, of course, the inevitable human consequence of power--any power--among monopolists. It was aggravated, and fatally, by another condition: by the fact that, 50 or 60 years after Lenin, the idea of communism ceased to have any attraction or even respect among the peoples and the leaders of the Soviet Union.

By 1982 when, for a short time, Yuri V. Andropov was the Soviet leader, the corruption and the inefficiency of the party had become matters of more-or-less open discussion--not only among the inner circles of leadership but to many people among the vast masses of the Soviet Union. It is also of some interest to note that Andropov (whose protege was Gorbachev) had risen from the diplomatic service through headship of the secret police (which is a state, not a party, apparatus) to the leadership of the Soviet Union.

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And now the constitutional changes initiated by Gorbachev truly mean the end of an era: the end of the unquestioned and unquestionable predominance of the party. This came about not only because of the internal rottenness of the party’s former leadership, but also because of Gorbachev’s recognition that the functioning of the Soviet Union must depend on the efficiency of a governmental structure and not on the apparatus of a party, the very composition and ideas of which have now proved to be corroded by the acid of human corruptibility and by history itself.

Similar, though not at all identical, developments have already occurred in other Eastern European states. But the historical development of Russia remains a unique matter--and not only because of its power and size. In sum, the spectacle before us involves the rejection of both Stalin’s and Lenin’s ideas--not to speak of the ideological heritage of Marx that was discarded, in everything but a few remnant phrases, long ago.


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